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A Short Analysis of Arthur Hugh Clough’s ‘Say Not the Struggle Nought Availeth’

A summary of a classic Victorian poem

‘Say Not the Struggle Nought Availeth’ is one of two poems by the Victorian poet Arthur Hugh Clough (1819-61) which are still widely read, anthologised, and analysed, the other being his satire on Victorian attitudes to the Ten Commandments, ‘The Latest Decalogue’. ‘Say Not the Struggle Nought Availeth’ – in other words, ‘don’t tell me that struggling doesn’t achieve anything’ – is all about the virtue of trying hard and striving to achieve something.

Say not the struggle nought availeth,
The labour and the wounds are vain,
The enemy faints not, nor faileth,
And as things have been they remain.

If hopes were dupes, fears may be liars;
It may be, in yon smoke concealed,
Your comrades chase e’en now the fliers,
And, but for you, possess the field.

For while the tired waves, vainly breaking
Seem here no painful inch to gain,
Far back through creeks and inlets making,
Comes silent, flooding in, the main.

And not by eastern windows only,
When daylight comes, comes in the light,
In front the sun climbs slow, how slowly,
But westward, look, the land is bright.

Arthur Hugh Clough was described as a ‘bad poet’ by Algernon Charles Swinburne and as ‘goodman Dull’ by the Poet Laureate, Tennyson. This reputation for being ‘dull’ and ‘bad’ has stuck. Yet Clough was a poetic one-off and his work is often hugely interesting – his long verse-epistle Amours de Voyage is still well worth reading for its humour and innovative approach to rhythm and metre – and the reputation of ‘Say Not the Struggle Nought Availeth’ has, in some ways, helped to consolidate the idea that Clough is the author of a couple of minor anthology pieces but the rest of his work is largely not worth bothering with. But this is not to deny that ‘Say Not the Struggle Nought Availeth’ is a fine statement about the values of hard work and perseverance. (Clough’s long poem The Bothie of Toper-na-fuosich is not much read or known about now, nor is the embarrassing error Clough made in borrowing that Gaelic title, whose origins supposedly lie in an obscene drinking toast that refers to ‘the bearded well’ – a euphemism for the female genitals.)

‘Say Not the Struggle Nought Availeth’ uses a military metaphor to discuss the idea of striving and labouring. This is undoubtedly why the poem has continued to be popular: it can be interpreted as a statement about the importance of persistence and hard work in order to achieve anything of lasting value. But its origins may have been somewhat more historically specific. When the poem was printed in Clough’s collected works in 1862, a year after his death, the date of composition for ‘Say Not the Struggle Nought Availeth’ was given as 1849. If this is true, there’s some reason to believe that Arthur Hugh Clough had in mind, when he wrote this poem, the failed Chartist revolution of 1848.

Clough was deeply interested in the revolutions across Europe in 1848. The Rome demonstration of that year is one of the chief subjects of his long poem Amours de Voyage. Clough was in Italy during 1848, and so didn’t witness the failed Chartist uprising back home in London. But his old friend Matthew Arnold was there to witness it, and wrote to Clough on 10 April 1848 about the terror felt by the protesters when the mounted police showed up:

[T]he Chartists gave up at once in the greatest fright at seeing the preparations: braggarts as they are, says my man: and Fergus O’Connor and Co—after giving themselves into custody expressed the greatest thankfulness to the Government that their polite offer was not taken advantage of on condition of their making the crowd disperse.—Then came 1/2 an hour after, the hard rain.

That was, in effect, the end of the Chartist dream of revolution in Britain. But many still felt that small change was possible, with some Victorians – Arnold himself included – situating themselves somewhere between the Chartists and the old guard represented by the Church and aristocracy. (Arnold himself said that, much as he desired change, he would be sorry to live under Chartist rule.)

We might analyse ‘Say Not the Struggle Nought Availeth’ through this contextual lens, then, and see it as a rallying cry to those in Britain who wanted social change but may have felt that, in the wake of London’s failed 1848 ‘insurrection’, that the status quo would remain for the foreseeable future (no matter how much the quo had lost its status). The poem’s use of repeated vowel sounds gives it an almost chant-like memorability:

Say not the struggle nought availeth,
The labour and the wounds are vain,
The enemy faints not, nor faileth,
And as things have been they remain.

This long ‘a’ sound continues in stanza three:

For while the tired waves, vainly breaking
Seem here no painful inch to gain,
Far back through creeks and inlets making,
Comes silent, flooding in, the main.

The fact that many of the key words of Clough’s poem – ‘vain’, ‘availeth’, ‘labour’ – contain this long ‘a’ vowel sound is deftly capitalised on. In the last analysis, ‘Say Not the Struggle Not Availeth’ derives part of its power for being a poem as much about failure as success: it does not try to fob us off with a simple message such as ‘try hard and you will succeed’. It openly acknowledges that failure is an option. But then what thing that was worth winning was easily won?

Image: Arthur Hugh Clough by Samuel Rowse, 1860; via Wikimedia Commons.

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Posted on March 28, 2017, in Literature and tagged , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. Comments Off on A Short Analysis of Arthur Hugh Clough’s ‘Say Not the Struggle Nought Availeth’.

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